Sunken ‘treasures’ from a riverbed

A 2017 Martin custom shop 14-fret acoustic guitar (L) and others made from ‘Sinker mahogany’. Pic courtesy: guitarchimp.

‘Sinker Mahogany’ is a very interesting variation of mahogany timber (Swietenia macrophylla) that is used extensively by the guitar manufacturing industry in the West.

Adventurous entrepreneurs saw Europe as an ideal market for the importation of the old-growth hardwoods of Central America. They braved the harsh environments of jungles, snakes, crocodiles and insects to harvest the timber and export it to Europe.

More than 200 years ago, when the British were cutting mahogany forests in Central America, they would float the logs down rivers for transport. There were no roads in the jungles; so the rivers were the highways.

Logging crews would work year round felling the trees and dragging the logs into the rivers. When the rains came the logs would be lashed into large rafts, floated downriver, loaded onto ships and delivered to European sawmills.

The first species to be exploited was Logwood, prized by dye makers for its brilliant red colour. The second most highly desired species was Mahogany.

But quite often the densest specimens would sink and get stuck in the riverbed. When timber companies retrieve these logs from the depths of the Belize River system it yields some of the most beautiful mahogany ever seen.

These trees were already about 200 years old when they were cut, and then slept on the river bottom for another 200 years. When dredged out, companies get 400-year-old, “riverbed-aged” mahogany!

Its colours range from a golden straw to specks of the darkest sediment and everything in between. The lacquer brings out all of the visual nuance of the wood.

At first ‘Sinker Mahogany’ was used as a substitute for new mahogany. It was soon discovered to be an exceptional tone wood. It seems that all those years “curing” at the bottom of crocodile-infested rivers changes the structure of the wood to produce amazing sounds in acoustic guitars.

The runout reflects amazing figures in both directions when flipped back and forth in the light. ‘Sinker Mahogany’ is truly a special example of one of the most revered guitar materials.

Furniture makers also prize ‘Sinker Mahogany’ for its rich colours. Some characteristics of ‘Sinker Mahogany’ are:

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